Global Goals: Birds Worth Traveling For

by Mel White
traveling to see birds

My friend O.W. has been known to say on more than one occasion that if the Northern Cardinal were found only in a truly remote, hard-to-get-to spot—say, up some obscure tributary of the Xingu—it would be one of the world’s most sought-after birds.

People would spend years planning trips, pay thousands of dollars, and risk a dozen kinds of insect-borne diseases for a chance to glimpse the legendary Crested Scarlet Grosbeak. Leonardo DiCaprio would give impassioned speeches to green groups: “We must save the Amazonian rainforest, the only known habitat of the Crested Scarlet Grosbeak!” The bird’s picture would be on those guilt-inducing envelopes we all get from the Worldwide International Wildlife Nature Conservation Fund: “Will you help save the Crested Scarlet Grosbeak . . . or will you throw this message into the trash?

All this to say that cardinals are really pretty, and we probably don’t appreciate them enough as they sit placidly munching sunflower seeds on our feeders. Who wouldn’t agree with that? Given a different, distant range, though, would it be one of your lust-inducing, go-halfway-around-the-world birds?

I’ll bet all of us have a list of such species—not just the jinx bird missed on a couple of trips to Arizona, but the ones that would inspire a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the other side of the planet. You’re flipping through a magazine and see a photograph and think, “Someday, when I’m retired” or “If I won the Powerball . . .” What turns an odd bird in a foreign field guide into a dream bird, or even an object of obsession? There must be as many answers as there are birders.

Recently I’ve been lucky enough to see a couple of species that had long had almost mythic status on my wish list. One was the Andean Cock-of-the-rock, the brilliant orange and black cotinga of foothill slopes in northwestern South America. Certainly this bird is gorgeous enough to rate a place on the lust list, but the same could be said for almost any number of other Neotropical cotingas, motmots, tanagers, et cetera pulchra. Something else must have created a special niche for the cock-of-the-rock in my mind sometime in the past. Quite possibly it was a photo feature in National Geographic way back in 1962, when I couldn’t have imagined ever visiting such a faraway place.

At any rate, this strange, top-heavy bird came to symbolize the exotic Andes, and for some reason (i.e., ignorance) I always assumed that seeing one of the famed leks of displaying males would require a long trek through rainforest to a remote and pristine site deep in the wilderness. As it happened, I was on a tour with friends heading toward Tandayapa Lodge in Ecuador when we drove along a steep, forested hillside in the Alambi River valley. We stopped and scanned the opposite slope, and soon spotted several males calling and displaying.

My heart palpitations were held in check by a) the distance of a couple of hundred yards between me and the cocks-of-the-rock, which popped in and out of the foliage like the targets in a Whac-a-Mole game, and b) the presence nearby of pesky, distracting things like Turquoise Jays, Golden Tanagers, and a tree full of Plate-billed Mountain-Toucans (the spectacular species illustrated by Paul J. Greenfield on the cover of The Birds of Ecuador field guide).

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My first sight of a cock-of-the-rock did not entail crawling silently through dense rainforest undergrowth and peeking over the buttress of a huge fig tree to witness a scene straight out of a two-page spread in National Geographic. In fact, we later saw a female several times hanging around a bridge in the little village of Tandayapa, within sight of kids playing fútbol and old men sitting around the store drinking a vile lemon-flavored booze called Zhumir. (“How do you know it was vile?” you ask.)

I have long had a habit of buying field guides for places I have no plans—and sometimes not even any real desire—to visit (see, e.g., The Birds of China in my bookcase). So it was that years ago I bought A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali by John MacKinnon and Karen Phillipps.

A good thing, too, because when work took me to Borneo in 2007, the guide was no longer in print. When I pulled it out of my pack people would notice it and say, “You’ve got the MacKinnon? Where did you get it?”

Well, I bought it 10 years ago because I like to flip through the plates and look at weird birds. Same reason I bought A Field Guide to Birds of The Gambia and Senegal.

You can get bogged down in page after page of brownish bulbuls and babblers, but Borneo has its share of odd and wonderful birds: parrots, malkohas, trogons, barbets, broadbills, pittas, minivets, and the fabulous hornbills. Like toucans on steroids, hornbills have huge bills and decorative “casques,” which once were (and probably still are, on the wildlife black market) trade items to be carved like ivory into knickknacks.

And weirdest of all is this goofy-looking thing on Plate 63 called the Bornean Bristlehead. Its strangeness starts with its shape, which combines a huge, heavy bill and a large, seemingly neckless head with a compact body and a short tail, as if someone had grafted the head of a much bigger bird onto a starling, and done a pretty botched-up job of it. Then there’s the feature that inspired its specific name of gymnocephala: a bald red head topped with short yellow “bristles,” made of small flaps of skin.

Taxonomists have never known what to do with the Bornean Bristlehead, having linked it to crows, shrikes, woodswallows, and who-knows-what in the past. Now it occupies its own monospecific family, the Pityriaseidae, next to the (also large-billed) Australian butcherbirds. This makes perfect sense to me, which no doubt means that DNA evidence will soon prove that the bristlehead is actually something completely different, like a parrot or a shorebird.

The illustration stopped me in my figurative tracks when I first browsed the Borneo field guide. The bristlehead was unlike anything I’d ever seen, perfectly typifying the kind of fabulously bizarre bird, found in some remote and mysterious place—literally halfway around the world—that fires dreams of suddenly acquired fortunes and visa application forms. Bornean Bristlehead: Could there be a more fantastical name?

Borneo turned out to be very different from anything I’d imagined. My first experience of the world’s third-largest island came in the Malaysian state of Sabah. (The island is divided among Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei.) There were luxury hotels, shopping malls, modern housing subdivisions, beach resorts, and high-rise condos. My cell phone worked better there than it does in the United States. (Of course, this is true everywhere in the world, with the possible exception of Antarctica.)

I saw one of the world’s rarest raptors, the White-fronted Falconet, as I stood on a hill beside a country-club parking lot full of Mercedes and Lexus automobiles belonging to businessmen riding their golf carts on the lush course below. Along the road nearby I got a wonderful look at one of the most beautiful birds I’ve ever seen, a Diard’s Trogon.

And I saw hornbills, beginning with Oriental Pied-Hornbill my first day in Borneo and continuing until I’d seen seven of the eight species found on the island. Had I known what a stunningly impressive and gorgeous bird the Rhinoceros Hornbill is, it would have been at the top of my want list. It’s definitely near the top of my I’m-glad-I-saw-it list now: long-tailed black and white body (the size of a Wild Turkey), flying through the canopy with whooshing wingbeats like a small helicopter, landing to feed on fruit and show a massive red and yellow bill and casque, gleaming as if polished to a perfect gloss. A knee-buckler, for sure.

A few days into my visit I spent a couple of days at Danum Valley, a reserve that—thanks to a convergence of geography, politics, and economics—has survived the extensive logging of most of Sabah to endure as one of the finest tracts of primary lowland rainforest in all of southeastern Asia. Orangutans, Bornean pygmy elephants, clouded leopards, and sun bears live here, as do Sumatran rhinoceroses, a species so critically endangered in Borneo that biologists are reluctant to reveal where the last few exist, for fear of losing them to poachers.

Some fine birds frequented the area right around the Danum Valley research center: a pair of Rhinoceros Hornbills feeding on fruit; Bushy-crested Hornbills flying above the treetops; Whiskered Tree-swifts, making sallies for insects over the Segama River and obligingly returning to the same spot time after time; Black-and-red Broadbills; Straw-headed Bulbuls; and White-rumped Shamas, among others.

There was time for only one hike along trails through the primary rainforest, and unfortunately the day arrived cloudy, with intermittent spitting rain that came and went quickly but continually threatened worse. In the forest, under gigantic dipterocarps (the dominant tree type of lowland Borneo) and breathtakingly massive koompasia trees (legumes the size of skyscrapers), visibility was like an unending dawn half-light. My guide—a knowledgeable but somewhat dyspeptic sort—called up a Garnet Pitta by mimicking its easily imitated whistle, and I thought this little purple-and-red jewel would be the day’s highlight.

But there was a commotion in the canopy, and my guide lit up with an excitement unseen over the previous five days. “Bristlehead!” he said in that half-whisper birders use when we’re unsuccessfully trying to be quiet. I looked up, to see nothing but silhouettes of branches against a gray sky.

A bird revealed itself by moving. . . . It was a Black Magpie, a corvid nearly as big as a Brown Jay that in other circumstances I would have been thrilled to see, except that right then it was interfering with my spotting a species of prodigious eccentricity that had long been—not exactly a dream, because dreams beckon with the promise that they might come true, but a symbol of untraveled places on the map, unknown languages, indecipherable passport stamps, unimaginable exoticism of flora and fauna.

The bristlehead appeared, but in brief glimpses that merely showed its bulky shape and big bill against the washed-out sky. Then once, and then again, it moved to a position between me and a branch or leaves, displaying its red and yellow head. My heart was racing, as our hearts do in such circumstances. The guide and I followed the bird (birds, actually, as the Black Magpie stayed overhead, too) for what seemed like a long time (but may have been only a couple of minutes), getting frustratingly short good views before the bristlehead disappeared up the hill, leaving us to look at each other wide-eyed, to grin stupidly, to resume something like normal respiration.

So I saw the Bornean Bristlehead. It was probably a singular event in my life, considering the circumstances that took me to the island and the unlikeliness of a return trip. No profound epiphanies or contributions to scientific knowledge came about as a result—only another of those birders’ moments when a picture from a field guide comes to life before our eyes, in this instance at the highest level of dizzy exhilaration. Hearing the name now—Bornean Bristlehead!—I’ll think of the forest, the patter of rain on parka, those few seconds of color. I was there.

It’s the nature of birding that something new moves to the top of the wish list when an I-want species becomes an I-saw. In my case it’s a little bird that lives in a place just as far away as Borneo but not so exotic: the Gouldian Finch of Australia. Are there people in the Northern Territories who consider it a trash bird, a pretty but overly common presence at their feeders? I don’t know and I don’t care. Somebody has to win the Powerball.

The Cornell Lab

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